Exclusive interview: Spandau Ballet’s Steve Norman looks back on the band’s history
Photographs Neil Mackenzie Matthews / Spandau Ballet; for illustration purposes
“I would bloody love it if my old muckers would put all the angst to one side and agree to a proper farewell tour.”
Exclusive interview: Spandau Ballet’s Steve Norman looks back on the band’s history and discusses his upcoming tour commemorating the band’s debut record “Journeys to Glory.”
David Warren is editor and author for Pop Expresso reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org
Spandau Ballet emerged from the New Romantic/Blitz Kids movement in the early 1980s, quickly becoming one of the movement’s frontrunners. “Journeys to Glory,” their debut album, turns 40 this year, and co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Steve Norman is bringing it back on the road live with his band, The Sleevz. Throughout the 1980’s, Spandau Ballet scored an impressive number of hit songs, starting with the 1981 “To Cut a Long Story Short” and including “Gold”, “Through the Barricades”, “I’ll Fly For You” and the multi-million seller “True”, among others. The band reformed in 2009 and released their first new album in years, “Once More,” but they won’t be reuniting to commemorate this milestone in their career; instead, Steve Norman promises to deliver a fantastic celebration of “Journeys to Glory.” Last week, Steve Norman talked to Pop Expresso and looked back on the album, Spandau Ballet’s career, and plans for his upcoming tour.
Steve, you were considered a child prodigy in music. What instruments did you first play to reach this status?
Actually, I’m quite surprised and somewhat embarrassed to be considered a child prodigy. It makes me feel proud though even if it’s not true.
I was attracted to drums at an early age in the 60s because of Brian Bennett of The Shadows. My Uncle Jim had all their records and I used to drum along to ‘Little B’ and ‘Big B’ on upturned boxes and bins using cutlery knives for drumsticks. When I was about 13 years old, my school pal, Steve G’s parents bought him a top of the range Premier drum kit which he kindly let me loose on to get some practice; playing along to Yes and Pink Floyd. However, my parents didn’t have much money and so I begged for a guitar instead.
Later came congas and hand/stick percussion followed by the sax just prior to recording the True album. I also play a little bass and drums but mainly it’s sax, guitar, percussion and vocals.
Can you tell us about some of your musical influences from the past and present?
Tamla Motown was the biggest culprit, especially Stevie Wonder. ‘Fullfillingness’ First Finale’, ‘Innervisions’ and ‘Talking Book’ were on constant rotation. Bowie too, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’. Steely Dan throughout the 70s and 80s. ‘The Royal Scam’ is my go-to whenever I’m in a hammock. Last but not least, all my family and friends’ record collections which I absorbed immediately.
What was the initial music direction you were heading in when you co-founded Spandau Ballet, shortly before the New Romantic movement exploded?
The first tunes we ever played together were Rolling Stones and Beatles covers. We were very into R&B (rhythm and blues) as we called it back then in 1976, before hip hop adopted it. It was a rock backbeat at that point. But as soon as we hit the clubs, the dance grooves took over.
We were no longer considered underground and our Blitz partners in crime had also started out on their very own journey to glory
Some early Spandau Ballet performances within the Blitz Kids crowd or at the Scala Cinema featured art expressions such as cinema and poetry reading alongside the music, always with a unique fashion sense. The fashion remained, but despite music being art, both of these other art expressions were dropped from your shows. Did this happen when you started to become more popular or before, and why?
I’ve always been intrigued by the mix of various art forms. Such as what a piece of music looks like or what an image could sound like. At this stage, we considered ourselves part of a bigger movement which encapsulated all art forms. But the more successful we became, then that movement started to thin out. We were no longer considered underground and our Blitz partners in crime had also started out on their very own journey to glory.
Watch the 1981 music video “To Cut A Long Story Short” by Spandau Ballet
When did you first notice Spandau Ballet crossing over from the underground to the mainstream?
Circa 1983….The True album period.
The scene was moving on. We had made a conscious decision to introduce more commerciality to our sound, go back to our soul roots, introduce more melody with less emphasis on the dance groove. Not forgetting that we also wanted to sell more records. Underground is cool but it doesn’t always make you financially stable.
Bowie was our silent guru
“Journeys to Glory” bears an audible resemblance to David Bowie’s experimental Krautrock era. Was that a conscious influence or just happened because you were absorbing a lot of late 1970’s experimental sounds, including Bowie’s?
Both. Bowie was our silent guru. Blitz DJ, Rusty Egan brought back as much vinyl as he could carry back from Germany with him, especially from Dusseldorf where Kraftwerk were based, and gave them a spin on a Tuesday night. He would mix the incoming vinyl with Bowie staples; the Berlin trilogy of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ (esp. the German version, ‘Helden’) and the then recently released ‘Lodger’. He would add Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’ and a smattering of French electronic disco from Telex, for example. Spandau used this as a springboard for our songs and our sound.
I’ve always said that Rusty was somewhat responsible for the 80s sounding as it did.
The success of ‘True’ and its musical direction would define Spandau for years as perhaps ‘Rio’ would define Duran
Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran were the strongest bands in the emerging New Romantic movement during the early 1980s, leading the movement both musically and stylistically. Curiously, both bands headed in different musical directions throughout the rest of the decade. In your opinion, did this help reach a wider audience worldwide by trying new sounds and music, for example, by introducing the saxophone into the Spandau Ballet?
The success of ‘True’ and its musical direction would define Spandau for years as perhaps ‘Rio’ would define Duran. It was my decision to ‘have a go’ on a different instrument that would also ultimately define me. There had always been two guitars in the band, Gary and I shared rhythm and lead duties respectfully except when he was on synth.
Whilst I was being all percussive during the ‘Diamond’ period of ’82, I realized that he had slipped in there and left little space for me and a second guitar. That’s when I thought, Ok..I’ll have a go at something else. It was almost trumpet as I could get a few notes out of my pal, Chris Sullivan’s (Blue Rondo a la Turk) one but I thought the instrument limited for our sound and where we were heading. I looked around and decided that the sax was for me as it was more flexible and sexier looking. And so, the band bought me a 2nd hand one and a year later we started recording the ‘True’ album with it. The sax has been my signature instrument ever since.
P.S. I ended up buying back that original sax in a Chris Evans scrubs auction a year or so ago for a lot more than we originally paid for it.
Not getting more involved in the songwriting for Spandau Ballet is one of the biggest regrets in my musical life
Was it a band decision to allow Gary Kemp to write the majority of Spandau Ballet’s songs, or did you (or any other members) feel restrained as songwriters?
I used to write songs for the band just prior to signing and recording J2G. To be honest, I lost confidence in my songwriting, suddenly stopped one day and focused on my main talent, my playing abilities.
It was obvious that Gary’s main talent was his songwriting. We all agreed that Gary can write a damned good tune.
Not getting more involved in the songwriting for Spandau Ballet is one of the biggest regrets in my musical life. At the same time, I am happy that I can now explore and enjoy the craft of songwriting for my own projects including The Sleevz.
Your song “True” became an impressive milestone that only a few musicians can achieve in their lifetime, with your saxophone solo being one of the most famous ever in pop music and the song being one of the most ever aired songs worldwide. When you first realized the song’s popularity, did you think it was a potential threat to the band’s egos?
It’s very sweet what you say about my sax solo but it’s bittersweet for me. A judge, a few moons ago, declared that should he see his country club events band performing ‘True’, he reckoned that their sax player would improvise and not stick to my original composition, so no copyright for me. A slap in the face. If there was any dent in any band member’s ego, then it was in mine.
Ironically, everyone at our shows still sing along to that exact composition of mine.
Have that, my Lord! Ha!
In contrast to the more recent and sophisticated “Once More,” your first credited track, “Motivator,” interestingly, had no sax in it. Do you agree that “Once More” is perhaps the best Spandau Ballet song in a long time?
I do. Gary and I both believed that ‘Once More’ slipped under the radar somewhat. There was a mad rush to satisfy a ‘Strictly’ TV slot appearance with Gold and so the single release date was put on hold. Eventually, it was never released as a single in the UK. Shame really. As for ‘Motivator’, I was keen to get back on guitar, which I did.
Was it a challenge to record your iconic hit songs in a different way than most people are accustomed to hearing them?
Yes, it was a beautiful challenge. I loved everything about making that album. Having seen the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Eric Clapton on MTV Unplugged, I was convinced that the acoustic guitar was more than capable of energy and drive and ‘in yer face’-ness than one would naturally assume. And it gave the band a chance to bond again after so much litigation and bad feeling as we recorded it at Hook End, a residential studio near Henley, UK.
“To Cut a Long Story Short,” an absolute classic, sounded very different from the original on the album “Once More.” I know you’ve previously mentioned this song as one of your favorite Spandau Ballet tracks; do you feel the same way about the new version?
I was with Gary at his house in London and I suggested we listen to a certain track from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s ‘Raising Sand’ which I was obsessed with at the time. In spite of the lighter moments, it’s fairly dark for a country album. I showed him one track in particular which just so happened to be in the same key as ‘Story’ and so I was able to mash up ‘Story’ with it by singing the vocal. It worked perfectly and that’s how we eventually moved forward with it.
You’ve performed at iconic venues throughout your career, both solo and with Spandau Ballet, including Live Aid in 1985 and the Mandela Tribute in 1988. Are there any venues that have held a special place in your career?
Besides the above…The Marquee in Soho’s Wardour St, long gone now. The Ku Club in Ibiza, now called Privilege.
Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club, also in Soho. Taormina Ampitheatre in Sicily, Verona Coliseum in Italy. Casa De Campo, Madrid, almost 100,000 peeps. Pizza Express Live Holborn, London, about 120 peeps capacity. There are so many to be honest.
I’ve learnt so much through collaborations over the years. I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside artists that I’ve admired for most of my life and have even become friends with most
Your solo career has been quite active, particularly through collaborations with a variety of artists. Do you intend to continue this trend of multiple collaborations?
I’ve learnt so much through collaborations over the years. I’ve been lucky enough to work alongside artists that I’ve admired for most of my life and have even become friends with most. I can jump from house music improvisation alongside a DJ to, say..Iggy Pop punk in a heartbeat. I will always continue to collaborate because I love it but right now, I’m focusing on my activities, ie The Sleevz and songwriting.
What can fans expect from your current live shows as you embark on tour with your band, The Sleevz?
They will get the high energy of 1980s Spandau. We could never sound exactly like Spandau and nor would I want us to. With all the ‘housebands’ and non-Spandau lineups that I’ve performed with over the years, they have never sounded like Spandau. The groove is different. Every individual has their own unique timing. I have to respect Spandau but also the individual musicians in The Sleevz. And ultimately the listener. So, we won’t be deviating too much from Spandau, but the groove will be slightly different.
Sprinkled with the usual Sleevz’ shenanigans, no doubt.
Is it “hard” for you to not mark the anniversary of “Journeys to Glory” on the road with your former Spandau Ballet bandmates, all the more so after the great “Once More” album that left fans hoping for the band to stay together?
I would bloody love it if my old muckers would put all the angst to one side and agree to a proper farewell tour. For the fans. And for us. I think we deserve to gift ourselves that.
We rarely speak Spandau, we just don’t go there. We are, quite simply, mates again
Despite Tony Hadley’s refusal to reform Spandau Ballet, do you or the band maintain good relations with him?
Yes, very much so. In fact, Tony was at my dear mum’s funeral a little over a year ago. His mum and mine were best mates and he and I are in touch all the time. But we rarely speak Spandau, we just don’t go there. We are, quite simply, mates again.
Actually, I’m on good terms with all of the band. That makes me happy.
Journeys to Glory is widely regarded as one of Spandau Ballet’s best albums; will any personal, good memories surface when you revisit this influential and well-aged album on your upcoming tour?
Yes, absolutely. I only recently listened to the album all the way through, as it was meant to be listened to, without cherry picking favourites. And I was somewhat surprised in that not only has it stood the test of time due to current artists mining the sounds of classic early 80s synthpop electronica but also that certain tracks that I considered dated over the years now sound fresh. That has opened my eyes up and leaves me more excited than ever to get cracking.
Now…where’s that kilt!
STEVE NORMAN TOUR DATES 2022
Tues 8th WOKINGHAM – The Whitty
Wed 9th LONDON – Half Moon Putney
Fri 11th ALTRINCHAM – Bowdon Rooms
Sat 12th DARLINGTON – The Forum
Sun 13th LYTHAM ST. ANNES – Lowther Pavilion
Tues 15th GUILDFORD – The Boileroom
Wed 16th NORWICH – Epic
Thurs 17th BIRMINGHAM – Hare & Hounds
Sat 19th SOUTHEND ON SEA – Chinnerys
Sun 20th BRIGHTON – Patterns
Tues 22nd LANCASTER – Grand Theatre
Wed 23rd BARROW IN FURNESS – The Forum
Thurs 24th EDINBURGH – Liquid Rooms
Fri 25TH GLASGOW – Oran Mor
TICKET LINK: https://linktr.ee/thesleevz
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Watch the 1983 Spandau Ballet music video for “True”
Watch the trailer of the Spandau Ballet documentary “Soul Boys of the Western World”
Listen to The Greatest Hits of Spandau Ballet on Spotify
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